Superhero Month: "The Phantom" Review

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures

Superhero Month: "The Phantom" Review

-- Rating: PG (action/adventure violence, some mild language)
Length: 100 minutes
Release Date: June 7, 1996
Directed by: Simon Wincer
Genre: Action/Adventure/Comedy

In 1938, millionaire industrialist Xander Drax (Treat Williams) has a nefarious plan that could give him more power than any one person should have, and he is very close to putting his plan into action. He plans to collect three priceless artifacts that could potentially give him unlimited power should he get all of them at the same time in "The Phantom," a heroic tale based on the long-running comic strips of the same name.

Drax is collecting the Skulls of Touganda, which are spread out in different areas across the globe. When mild-mannered Kit Walker (Billy Zane) gets wind of Drax's plan, he turns into the Phantom, one of a long line of heroes who have taken up the same costume and sworn to protect mankind from these kinds of shenanigans. He has his trusty steed named Hero and his wily wolf companion named Devil to help him out as he sets out to find the skulls before Drax's team does. At around the same time, Drax's nemesis, newspaper publisher Uncle Dave Palmer (Bill Smitrovich) sends his daughter Diana (Kristy Swanson) out on essentially the same mission. Diana and the Phantom meet up in the jungle while pursuing one of the skulls, and the sparks are instant and palpable. Diana and Kit used to date way back when but broke up when Kit balked at having to reveal his secret identity. Diana doesn't recognize him in his full Phantom gear, but she can tell that something is familiar about him.

Despite the initial awkwardness, they reluctantly decide to work together to find the skulls, since two heads are better than one. Diana also has great intel on Drax and the backing of her father, who is Drax's biggest foe. Before they can find the skulls and hide them from Drax, they must first defeat Drax's henchmen, including the dangerous Quill (James Remar) and Sala (Catherine Zeta Jones), who eventually switches sides to aid Diana and the Phantom. Of course, whenever a daredevil who used to work for the enemy decides to go rogue, the question of trust is always raised. Is she a trustworthy ally or a secret adversary who is trying to throw Diana and the Phantom off the scent of the skulls?

"The Phantom" is not only a swashbuckling action/adventure romp but also something of a homage to adventure stories from yesteryear. The film is sprinkled with references, some sly and some obvious, to the stories of Rudyard Kipling ("The Jungle Book") and Edgar Rice Burroughs ("Tarzan"). Anyone who has read any of these stories will see a few similarities to the adventurous nature and wanderlust of those books in the film. That being said, "The Phantom" is certainly not a derivative film, since it has plenty of original plot points and twists to allow it to stand on its own while still serving as a bit of a paean to those novels.

The film is mostly based on the Lee Falk comic strips that came into prominence in the mid-1930s and were still being printed when the film came out in 1996, albeit with a different writer at the helm. Screenwriter Jeffrey Boam was tasked with adapting the large amount of source material, which he did very well. It probably didn't hurt that his previous credits included "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," a film about an archaeologist who loves adventure and artifacts, not unlike Xander Drax but without the villainy. Boam isn't the only with ties to the Indiana Jones canon, as director Simon Wincer also helmed several episodes of the great but short-lived TV series "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles." Together, they form a formidable one-two punch that allows "The Phantom" to really shine.

Some fans of comic books who know the history of the medium will claim that the Phantom is actually the original superhero. His 1936 introduction predates even Superman, a fact that even ardent comic book fans may not realize. As such, the Phantom of the comic strips is rough around the edges like the first of his kind should be. He doesn't have actual superhuman skills like Superman and doesn't have the technology or funds to build a Batmobile. Instead, he relies on heavily practiced skills, intuition, and good old fashioned bravery to be a hero. The film does an excellent job of capturing his homegrown skills, being careful not to make him look too slick or polished. It gives the film a charm that is lacking in some other superhero films and gives it an original spin that makes it fun to watch.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5